Word Builds: The Lego Principle


The exercises are not in any sequence, but they are listed below in a rough order of increasing difficulty:

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Exercises with the ... Student Teacher
Student Teacher

Teacher's Introduction

After watching my pre-school great-grandson build that big, complicated rocket ship out of many Lego parts, I decided to try to compose exercises that apply a version of that approach to the construction of written words: lots of small parts with various kinds of instructions, or clues. Thus, for instance, at the beginning of the Word Build dealing with 15 words that contain the base pose "put, place," the students' are given the following list of prefixes and suffixes to use in building those 15 words:

(com- "With, together" -al) Forms nouns
(dis- "Apart, separate" -ite) Forms nouns
(ex- "Out" -ition) Forms nouns
(in+m "In, on" -ure) Forms nouns
(ob+p "Against"    
(pro "Forth, forward"    
(pur- "Forth, before"    
(sub+p "Under"    

All of the 15 word frames in the pose exercises have the target base filled in as shown below. The students have been told that the grey boxes are for them to fill in, that the heavy vertical lines mark the boundaries between word parts, and that the e indicates an <e> that has been deleted:

Prefix + base + suffix: A noun "That which has been put together"
Write the word:_______________________

Thus, they see that the word they are to build and write out is a noun that consists of a three-letter prefix followed by the base pose (with the final <e> deleted) ending with a five-letter suffix. They see that the word means "that which is put together." If they know the word right off (as they likely often will), they simply fill in the boxes, write out the word, and go on to the next one. If they don't know the word (and they often won't), they have all the clues to help them figure it out. For instance, among the suffixes listed, all of which in this case form nouns, only one has five letters, -ition), and among the three-letter prefixes only one is glossed with the word "together". They know that the general sense of pose is "put, place." Drawing from all these clues, even if the word is new to them, building it is pretty straightforward:

Prefix + base + suffix: A noun "That which has been put together"
Write the word:             composition             

By actively putting together the clues, they think their way to the word. Rather than passively memorizing someone else's conclusions, they use the clues to reach conclusions of their own, building off of things they already know. In the process they actively use grammatical terms like noun, verb, adjective, adverb and word structure terms like base, prefix, suffix, and final <e> deletion. (In other exercises they work with assimilation and twinning. For more on these three procedures see "Silent final <e>," "Assimilation," and "Twinning" in the Compendium of English Orthography.)

In addition to the structure of the written words, they also work with the history and relationships among meanings. Sometimes the glosses give the students earlier, even ancient, meanings; sometimes they give short modern definitions. The students are immediately involved with the fact that meanings change over time, and one of the recurrent discussion questions becomes "How did we get from that older meaning to our modern one?"

As students do the exercises, they will see the sometimes considerable differences between the older and modern meanings as those meanings change over time. At first they may see these differences as an irritant — maybe even an imperfection — in our language. But it need not be an irritant and it is not an imperfection: It is a sign that our language is a living thing, changing and adapting to changing worlds and different people using it in those changing worlds.

In the exercises we speak of meanings, but that's just a shortcut, for words and their parts actually don't have meanings — people do. What words and their parts have I call content, essentially a range of senses that people can draw from to create meanings in the acts of writing and reading, listening and speaking. Content is what dictionaries try to describe in their definitions. And content is always multiple — for instance, in the American Heritage Dictionary the relatively straightforward word sight has over a dozen main senses, which are then divided into several subparts. But when we use the word sight, we don't use all those senses. Normally, we use just one, or at least try to. So there's a conundrum: A word always contains more than it is used to mean. But also it is always used to mean more than it contains, because all of the particulars of our use of the word — the time, the place, our intentions, our relationship to the reader, what has been said before, all of those things and more are part of the meaning we create with that word, but none of it is in the word's content. There is always a mismatch. There is always meaning left over, and it is that surplus of meaning that causes the content over time to change, to add or modify or subtract earlier senses. It's all part of the fact that ours is a living language, not a dead one like, say, Hittite, spoken tens of thousands of years ago in what today is part of Turkey and known to us today only in mostly untranslated cuneiform clay tablets. English is not like Hittite: it is living and changing, evolving like a biological organism. The exercises involve the students actively in that evolution. For more see "Content and Meaning" in the Compendium and "Orthography as an Evolving Complex System" elsewhere on this website.

How to Use the Exercices

Most of the time the prefixes, bases, and suffixes combine by simple addition. And in cases of silent final <e> deletion, twinning, and assimilation crucial letters are filled in to help the students, while the Teacher's Versions often include hyperlinks to more information.

Unless your students' computers allow editing of pdf files, the students' files will have to be converted to some other format or printed out, but the teacher's pdf files, with hyperlinks like those in blue above and below, should be used directly on your computer. Teacher's versions contain all the word frames filled in, the words written out, more bits of information about certain words, and lists of other words with the same base, prefix, or suffix as those in the exercise at hand.

I recommend that class discussion be as open and lively as possible — exploring connections among those changing meanings. The lists of related words in the teacher's version should be useful for this kind of discussion. The point is to get the students interested in and inquisitive about English words, their structure and meanings, their life. Getting correct answers, in terms of the words' actual histories, is not as important as lively, relaxed discussions. But good etymological information can still be very helpful. For a list of dictionaries with etymological information see "On Dictionaries and Other Helps for Teaching Vocabulary and Spelling" in the Short Articles venue of this site and "Dictionaries" in the Compendium.

Discussion could also involve having the class think of other words that can be built from the words in the exercise. For instance, given the word instruct, students could come up with the inflections instructs, instructed, instructing and the derivations instruction, instructor, instructive – maybe even instructional, instructively, instructiveness, instructorship, or uninstructible, uninstructive, uninstructing. Having a dictionary handy could help such a discussion. You might even ask students to make up their own instruct words that they define for the class — for instance, maybe anti-instructible or instructophobia.

The idea is to avoid having students sitting quietly and alone memorizing things. I believe their learning will be deeper, their memories stronger, if the learning comes through the active give and take of discussion — rather as they learned to speak.

The discussions encourage the students to see connections among words that are spelled or pronounced or used to mean in similar ways. Inevitably students are going to come up with false hits. Such students should be praised, for they are clearly getting the general point of the exercise even though their particular example may be off. Sometimes the falseness of the hit can be easily explained. For instance, the lack of a connection between, say, the homographs entrance entr+ance) "place of entry" and entrance (en+trance "to put into a trance" is quite straightforward. Other cases can be more complex. A first place to look for help would be the list of topics in the Compendium. For instance, if a student suggests a connection between the homophones dessert "final course of a meal" and desert "to abandon," the Compendium topic "Desert, dessert, deserts" can help straighten things out. More generally, most false hits can be straightened out by looking closely at the definitions and etymologies in a good dictionary.

All in all, the key to Word Builds is not passive, solitary rote memorization, but rather active, social inductive reasoning — together with some informed guessing.